As lawmakers in Washington, D.C. gear up to potentially pass new legislation on federal student aid, universities across the country — including Yale — are paying close attention.
The Higher Education Act is a landmark piece of legislation that was first signed into law under President Lyndon Johnson, governing the administration of federal student aid programs such as Pell Grants. The act, which was last amended in 2008 and is up for reauthorization after it expires at the end of 2014, determines how federal dollars are awarded to colleges and students, touching on areas ranging from loan limits to accreditation — though the funds themselves are provided by Congress’s Appropriations Committees.
Yale and other universities are taking an active interest in seeing that the act is reauthorized soon, and with a number of specific reforms.
“Yale would like very much to see the Higher Education Act reauthorized. The debate about reauthorization is still at an early stage,” said University Associate Vice President for State and Federal Relations Richard Jacob, adding that the reauthorization process typically takes three to five years.
Barry Toiv, the vice president for public affairs at the Association of American Universities, said he is confident that an HEA reauthorization bill will be passed, but the timeline for it cannot be predicted.
Proposals on how to reform the act have proliferated, with ideas ranging from holding colleges more accountable for costs and outcomes, to providing more counseling for federal student loan borrowers.
Yale is looking to ensure the authorization of federal financial aid programs such as Pell Grants and Federal Work Study. The University also has an interest in expanding federal financial support for graduate and professional students, who typically pay higher interest rates on their loans than undergraduates, Jacob said.
Other priorities for Yale include restoring the funding for international and area studies programs — which was cut in fiscal year 2012 — and streamlining the Free Application for Federal Student Aid.
While the push for new legislation in Washington occurs at a high level, its impact will ultimately be felt by students. For instance, Matt Glover ‘15 said that the FAFSA form was “outdated” and difficult to fill out.
“It’s hard to figure out what the form is asking for in a lot of instances,” Glover said.
Lastly, Jacob added, the University is prioritizing a review of federal higher education regulations and their associated costs.
Dianne Miller, Cornell’s director of federal relations identified similar priorities, adding that Cornell is actively lobbying on the HEA and plans to “step up [its] activity as Congress becomes more fully engaged on the issue.”
But in Washington, nothing moves quickly. The act is unlikely to be reauthorized by the time Congress leaves for the holidays on Dec. 12.
Several education professionals who are following the reauthorization of the act suggested that the field of higher education can be unusually fertile ground for bipartisanship in Washington. But rather than attempt to reform the act in one omnibus bill, they said, Washington’s focus has shifted to reform through a piecemeal approach.
“Many issues in higher education attract bipartisan support, so there really shouldn’t be a reason to not achieve most of the policy goals being advanced,” said Dennis Cariello, the higher education legal practice group leader at law firm DLA Piper. “Also, Education and Workforce Committee Chairman John Kline’s process of passing smaller higher education bills — as opposed to a massive omnibus reauthorization — does a good job of focusing on areas in which everyone agrees.”
Cariello said there seems to be “real consensus” on the need to simplify the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, the form that students must fill out to receive federal financial aid.
On the other hand, some lawmakers have argued that a piecemeal approach will not do enough to lower the cost of higher education.
“We must move quickly and decisively to make college more accessible and affordable, to increase oversight and quality assurance of colleges and loan servicers, and to promote new and innovative practices that can reduce student loan debt,” U.S. Rep. George Miller of California said in a statement over the summer. “And this can only happen through a full-scale rewrite of the Higher Education Act.”
And despite opportunities for cooperation, partisan polarization in Washington could ultimately derail efforts at major reforms. According to Toiv, the issue is “just one more barrier to overcome for what has become a very complex legislative package.”
The Higher Education Act was first signed into law on Nov. 8, 1965.